You can only get to Western Sahara at night. The flight from Algiers lands at 3am in Tindouf, the largest city within this extreme patch of land in the southwest of Algeria. Nor can you walk freely out of the small airport – it’s a militarized zone and the visa only guarantees one pass.
Instead, we are escorted by the Algerian army for 50 kilometres to the entrance of the refugee camps. After a seamless change in the dark, we’re taken into the charge of the Polisario, the liberation front that for the past few decades has been supervising this piece of land. This is where the disputed geographical entity we call ‘Western Sahara’ begins. Its borders, as they’re traced in books and magazines, are often the matter of cartographic skirmishes between Polisario and Moroccan diplomacy, who both tend to correct every unwelcome representation.
Western Sahara is actually a European story of two Spanish colonies – Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro – which Spain abandoned in 1975 and which Morocco then annexed to its territory, in the face of the indigenous Saharawi people’s ambition for self-determination. A war ensued, long and painful like all battles fought in the desert, ending in 1991 with an armistice and an unofficial territorial division. Morocco held on to the coastal area, richer in resources (particularly phosphates), leaving the Saharawi a slice of desert, mostly inhabitable, which they now call the Free Zone.
Today, this community is divided into three parts: 170,000 live in refugee camps within Algerian territory, around 200,000 in what is today the southern part of Morocco, even though the Saharawi still refer to it as the Occupied Zone, and around 30,000 in the Free Zone, a buffer between the first two.
In order to understand the Saharawi desire to become a nation state, one needs to get out of the refugee camps in Algeria, full of an unrest artificially enhanced by decades of humanitarian help, and travel to the Free Zone. Proper roads cut off at the check-point where Algeria ends and the hamada begins – the kind of desert that is made of rocks and stone, harder and harsher than sand and dunes. After the check-point, the only human beings we meet are nomadic herders, cameleers and drivers headed to Mauritania, their trucks full of goods, moving down beaten tracks.
There is neither phone signal nor electricity here. Our driver Mohammed can only follow his compass, his instinct and his experience. The landscape around us is dotted with abandoned tanks, left behind by the Moroccan army. The Free Zone is inhabited by soldiers and the occasional family, who choose to stay here because, as someone who was mutilated in war against Morocco tells me: ‘Even spitting, if it’s on your own soil, has a different flavour.’ Cities are really outposts populated by a few hundred people, with a school, a marketplace and a small clinic.
One of these outposts is the current capital of Western Sahara, Tifariti. The territory’s government acts out of the refugee camps, but a need for a capital for the future state arose, and a presidential palace has been built in Tifariti, rising over a rock overlooking the desert. Used only to hold official ceremonies, the rest of the time it stands empty and closed off, guarded by two soldiers who pass the time making tea. There’s a satellite dish spreading a Wi-Fi signal; it becomes a gathering ground for the people living nearby, who sit by it to latch onto an internet connection, a limited and rare resource here.
The western border of the Free Zone is delimited by one of the longest walls in the world, only reachable after once again crossing the desert for many hours. Built in the 1980s and guarded by the Moroccan army, it is an uneven embankment, 1,700 miles long and surrounded by hidden land mines which still regularly claim victims.
The Free Zone is a symbol of the geographical aspirations of the Saharawi. However, their political and social life thrives in the refugee camps, spontaneously born in the mid-1970s when Algeria chose to receive Saharawi families escaping the war. Here, the Saharawi government tends to its office, handles the diplomatic network and keeps order in the streets. There’s a nightly curfew, and strict security measures have been in place since 2011, when a cell of Malian jihadists kidnapped three NGO workers, two Spaniards and an Italian. They were only freed nine months later.
During the day the camps are bustling with activity – unofficial markets, exchange of gas cylinders, goat and camel farming, distribution of food from UNHCR and Red Crescent, educational projects. By night there’s only darkness and silence. For every Saharawi person, the camps are still a temporary solution, but the idea of ‘temporary’ has by now become feeble, as they reach the third generation of the refugees who outran the war.
Each of the camps bears the name of a city in Western Sahara: Aioun, Dakhla, Smara, Tifariti, and each harbours members of the same families and the same traditions as the real locations. In Dakhla they still propose fish to guests because the occupied Dakhla (or just Dakhla in Morocco, depending on your point of view) lies close to an extremely abundant sea. In these camps, those who are now grandparents used to live in tents, but their children built houses made with bricks of sand. Now, houses built in concrete are becoming more frequent, partly as a protection against flooding. Rains here are rare but disastrous. Electricity caught on only in 2015, there are no sewers, no running water or an appropriate system of distribution for domestic gas.
There’s something else lacking too. Western Sahara has no universities; young people relocating to Tindouf, Algiers or Spain for their studies have to choose between becoming part of the diaspora or going back to the camps, where the only professional possibilities are the army or the government bureaucracy. A larger portion of the Saharawis don’t work at all and many spend their lives inside the home. When they invite us in to serve tea in the Berber fashion, and start telling their stories, the word we hear most is ‘esperar’ – ‘to wait’. Colonisation left the Saharawi an inheritance of Spanish as a second language, while their mother tongue is Hassaniya, a local dialect of Arabic.
The end point of these conversations is always the same: ever since the 1991 armistice, Saharawis have been waiting for a referendum and the birth of their nation. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, considering that the Saharawi have repeatedly been promised the right to self-determination by the UN, Spain and Morocco. But more than 40 years have passed without a referendum being held. During this time, the camps have been managed by the UN mission MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) which is officially in charge of creating the political conditions for self-determination but which, in reality, has been managing the status quo, trying to avoid the explosion of the current standoff into violence.
It is this possibility – of a return to violence – that also underlies every conversation. A wait this long generates rifts within a population, and today that is most evident between the young – who often talk about reclaiming weapons and who share videos of military trainings on Tik Tok – and the women and the elders, the only ones left upholding an old promise of a peaceful struggle.
‘We don’t want a war because we think we could win it, but because we want to draw the attention of the world,’ explains Nayem Lahrad. He is a coordinator for the Red Crescent volunteering force and has obtained a Spanish passport.
But as Damaha Mohamed, mayor of Smara, one of the biggest refugee camps says: ‘The young ones say they want a war and that they’re ready to fight it. Those youngsters don’t know what war is, they don’t know what it has taken from us.’
An old Saharawi adage holds that: what an old man laying down sees, a standing young man doesn’t – but young people have to see something. ‘Better to become a graveyard than keep living like this,’ one man tells me. ‘Every day I wake up, I pray, and I wait for war.’ Time mixed with frustration has led to an infection that keeps on festering.
‘We opted for a peaceful struggle, but it becomes ever so difficult to explain it to the newer generations,’ Omar Mih, a representative of Western Sahara inside European institutions, explains. ‘The idea keeps spreading that the war has brought more results than peace, and we, the pacifist ones, are getting older.’
The war with Morocco and the ensuing militarisation of the population also brought another side effect, this time more positive. There is no other Arabic community in which women have as much emancipation or hold a more central role than in Western Sahara. With the men fighting and overseeing the Free Zone, women grabbed the reins of society. They became mayors, governors, ministers and doctors.
Today, women manage humanitarian aid and international relations; they welcome visiting delegations. While waiting for political independence, women here have conquered their own personal subjugation. It’s an oft-repeated concept, a marketing strategy for forgotten causes, but it is also the truth. ‘The Saharawi history moves through women,’ Dumaha Ali Mohammed, mayor of Faria, tells me.
One of the most important of these women is Aminatou Haidar, the so-called ‘Gandhi of Western Sahara’ who in 2019 received the Right Livelihood Award, commonly referred to as the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’. Born in 1967, when Western Sahara was under Spanish colonial rule, she has spent her life as a nonviolent activist and human rights defender, peacefully campaigning for the independence of her homeland. Her picture hangs in every house, every office, every school. But her work is also considered a shared responsibility.
One evening, while dining with a local family, I go outside to look up at the sky. In the dark, a figure approaches me. I can’t make out a face, but I hear the voice and realise it is a young girl. She tells me her name is Mariam; she wants to practice her English. ‘When I grow up I want to be a diplomat,’ she says at the end of our chat. ‘I want to offer a future to myself and the children I will have.’
Then there is Nuena Djllbani, who at 59 years old heads a school for girls in the camps, teaching them everything from how to use a Kalashnikov to how to stitch a wound, cook, use a computer, name all the bones inside the human hand and speak English. Every day, she listens and learns their desires. ‘They want what girls all over the world want,’ she says. ‘Independence, a car, they want to eat fish at a restaurant, a house with a garden. But you can’t have personal independence if your community has none.’
Before we say our goodbyes Nuena teaches me the azgarit, the cry the Saharawi women use to herald weddings, births and rebellion. Her tongue folds and runs horizontally on her lips as a high sound comes up, fast and excited. ‘Now imagine the sound of a thousand azgarits all together; that’s what we will do when we finally get back home.’
Ferdinando Cotugno is a freelance journalist, Francesco Lastrucci is a freelance photographer based in the Mediterranean area, India and Colombia